Has UN Peacekeeping Become More Deadly?

Peacekeepers from the AU-UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID0 carry the coffins of their fallen colleagues, to be repatriated to Senegal, El Fasher, Darfur, October 13, 2013. (UN Photo/Albert González Farran)

Marina E. Henke

Many practitioners believe that peacekeeping has become an increasingly dangerous undertaking in recent years. My research paper “Has UN Peacekeeping Become More Deadly? Analyzing Trends in UN Fatalities”, tries to get at the heart of this question. It examines trends in fatalities using a new dataset compiled by the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). The dataset accounts for monthly fatalities by type of fatality (accident, malicious act, illness, and other causes), nationality of the deceased as well as personnel type for each UN operation worldwide during the time period of 1948 - June 2015. To assess trends, the paper merges this monthly fatality data with monthly deployment data and calculates fatality ratios (i.e., fatalities rates relative to deployment levels) by national contingent, mission, and globally (i.e., all UN missions combined). This is a novelty. All previous studies have worked with yearly deployment averages. As a result, the analysis of fatality trends presented in this paper constitutes the most detailed study of this phenomenon thus far.

While fatality rates and ratios due to accidents and malicious acts are declining … increasingly troops, police and military observers die due to illness-related causes while serving in UN missions

The principal findings of the paper are as follows: overall UN fatalities are not substantively on the rise. Indeed, total fatality ratios are sharply declining. Nevertheless, this good news does not equally apply to all types of UN fatalities. While fatality rates and ratios due to accidents and malicious acts are declining, the same cannot be said for illness-related fatality rates and ratios. Indeed, the report provides strong evidence, that fatalities due to illness follow an upward trajectory: increasingly troops, police and military observers die due to illness-related causes while serving in missions.

These findings go against analyses that UN peacekeepers face increasing risk due to changing peacekeeping mandates and more dangerous peacekeeping environment. Both of these changes would imply increases in fatalities due to malicious acts or accidents. Instead it appears that illness-related fatalities constitute the most worrisome development – at least when it comes to peacekeeping fatality rates.

The report does not make claims with regard to UN casualties. The UN currently does not provide systematic data on injuries and/or attacks on UN peacekeepers. It is possible that the number of those has increased in recent years. Due to medical advances, more wounded personnel are able to survive. Without a doubt, these injuries and attacks need to be taken into account when assessing the overall risks peacekeepers face.

The needs

The report suggests that the UN needs to reassess the importance of health issues in the realm of peacekeeping deployments. Risks in this area urgently need to be addressed in order to improve the safety and security of peacekeepers.

More research is necessary to fully understand why illness-related fatalities have increased in recent years and how to reverse this trend. To do so, the UN should commission a report to examine the reasons for the stark increase in health-related fatalities. In the meantime, DPKO must better enforce its own health-related principles and guidelines, notably with regard to pre-deployment health checkups as well as health and hygiene conditions of in-mission medical facilities.

Health considerations should also inform the ongoing development of capability standards. In the C-34 and other UN fora most attention has thus far been given to the prevention of hostile acts (i.e., better protective equipment in the field, anti-mine vehicles etc.). Ill health and the prevention of health related death have garnered much less attention.

Nevertheless, fatalities are not necessarily the best measure to assess the entirety of risks peacekeepers face. To accurately address the latter question, the number of wounded soldiers that survive because of medical care also needs to be taken into account. The UN should start to systematically collect and make publicly available data across missions with regard to injuries and/or attacks on peacekeepers. To date, no such single medical database exists.

This report was published by Providing for Peacekeeping and the International Peace Institute (IPI). You can download the full report “Has UN Peacekeeping Become More Deadly? Analyzing Trends in UN Fatalities” here.

Marina E Henke is an Assistant Professor at Northwestern University. Her research focuses on military interventions, UN peacekeeping, and European security and defense policy. | Twitter: @mephenke